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Soul Idolatry

You can be sure that no immoral, impure, or covetous person will inherit the Kingdom of Christ and of God. For a such a person is really an idolater who worships the things of this world.” Ephesians 5:5

Puritan David Clarkson penned a fabulously helpful treatise called Soul Idolatry Excludes Men From Heaven. “Every reigning lust”, he says, “is an idol—and every person in whom it reigns is an idolater. Listen as he defines the terms:

Idolatry is to give that honor and worship to ‘the creature’, which is due to the Creator alone. When this worship is communicated to other things, whatever they are, we thereby make them idols, and commit idolatry. Now this worship due to God alone, is not only given by the savage heathen to their stick and stones—and by papists to angels, saints and images—but also by carnal men to their lusts.

Building on his theme, Clarkson goes on to identify two modes of worship: that which is external and that which is internal.

External, which consists in acts and gestures of the body. When a man bows to or prostrates himself before a thing, this is the worship of the body. And when these gestures of bowing, prostration are used, not out of a civil, but a religious respect, with an intention to testify divine honor, then it is worship due only to God.

Internal, which consists in the acts of the soul and actions answerable thereto. When the mind is most taken up with an object and the heart and affections most set upon it, this is ‘soul worship’—and this is due only to God. For He being the chief good and the chief end of intelligent creatures, it is His due, proper to Him alone, to be most minded and most loved. It is the honor due only to the Lord to have the first, the highest place, both in our minds and hearts and endeavors.

Outward Worship vs Soul Worship

Having established this distinction in worship, Clarkson points out that there are two corresponding sorts of idolatry:

1. Open, outward idolatry, when men, out of a religious respect, bow to, or prostrate themselves before anything besides the true God. This is the idolatry of the heathen, and in part, the idolatry of papists.

2. Secret and soul idolatry, when the mind is set on anything more than God; when anything is more valued than God, more desired than God, more sought than God, more loved than God. Then is that soul worship, which is due only to God.

Practical Help

There is always some debate over when a person or thing becomes an idol? How does that happen and where exactly is the line that separates good things from ultimate things? Here too, Clarkson is helpful. Here are the thirteen avenues of inward or “soul worship”. Take it as a diagnostic of sorts.

  1. Esteem. That which we most highly value we make our God; to have an high esteem of other things, when we have low thoughts of God, is idolatry.
  2. Mindfulness. That which most consumes our thoughts. Thinking otherwise of God than he has revealed himself, or minding other things as much or more than God, is idolatry.
  3. Intention. Goals, aspirations, our great aims in life all reveal the primary motivations of the heart and are therefore useful in the discovery of soul-idolatry. God is to be our chief aim; all other goals are to lie in the direction of Him.
  4. Resolution. When we resolve presently for other things, but refer our resolves for God to the future; let me get enough of the world, of my pleasure, of my lusts, now; I will think of God hereafter, in old age, in sickness, on a death-bed: these are idolatrous resolutions; God is thrust down, the creatures and your lusts advanced into the place of God; and that honour which is due only to him you give unto them. This is unquestionable idolatry.
  5. Love. That which we most love we worship as our God; for love is an act of soul-worship… Love, whenever it is inordinate, it is an idolatrous affection.
  6. Trust. That which we most trust we make our god; for confidence and dependence is an act of worship which the Lord calls for as duo only to himself.
  7. Fear. That which we most fear we worship as our god; for fear is an act of worship… Those, therefore, who fear other things more than God; who are more afraid to offend men than to displease God; who fear more to lose any outward enjoyment…who fear outward sufferings… who hath rather sin than suffer… they stand guilty of idolatry, that which is here threatened.
  8. Hope. That which we make our hope we worship as God; for hope is an act of worship
  9. Desire. That which we most desire we worship as our god; for that which is chiefly desired, is the chief good in his account who so desires it; and what he counts his chief good, that he makes his god.
  10. Delight. That which we most delight and rejoice in, that we worship as God… That which is our delight above all things we glory in it; and this 18 the prerogative which the Lord chaflenges, 1 Cor. i. 31, Jer. ix. 23, 24.
  11. Zeal. That for which we are more zealous we worship as god; for such a zeal is an act of worship due only to God… This is idolatrous; for it shews something is dearer to us than God; and whatever that be, it is an idol; and thy zeal for it is thy worshipping of it, even with that worship which is due only to God.
  12. Graitude. That to which we are most grateful, that we worship as God… To ascribe that which comes from God unto the creatures, is to set them in the place of God, and so to worship them.
  13. When our care and industry is more for other things than for God… When you are more careful and industrious to please men, or yourselves, than to please God; to provide for yourselves and posterity, than to be serviceable unto God… while the God of heaven is neglected, and the worship and service due unto him alone is hereby idolatrously given to other things…”

Adapted from: David Clarkson, Soul Idolatry, p 5-9.

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